Camera Lacrimosa

Roland Barthes wrote a book about photography called Camera Lucida, a play on “camera obscura,” that ancient primogenitor to Polaroids and Instagrams. In it, he introduces useful terms for reading photographs, like “studium” (the presence of elements that lend themselves to sociocultural or historical analysis) and “punctum” (the features that convey a meaning in an individual without invoking any recognizable symbolic system), anchoring his reflections in (his) subjectivity and emotion.

Halfway through the book, however, Barthes seemingly abandons his whole project (or takes it to its logical extreme) and begins to meditate on a single photograph of his own recently-deceased mother as a child. His search for a photo that truly captured her essence, the way he knew her, paradoxically took him all the way back to that time, long before his own. Something about her expression in the winter garden struck him as immortalizing “the impossible science of the unique being”—her unique “that-has-been.”

I read somewhere that Barthes ends up revealing that he doesn’t even have this ur-photo in his possession anymore. I don’t know if that’s true; an abrupt change is palpable between chapters 47 and 48, but if that admission takes place somewhere in those pages, I must have missed it. I may have been distracted by my own musings about this impossible science of emanations.

I could have waited to write these words until I had the chance to consult my copy of his book later today, but I don’t want to. Barthes’s book isn’t really about that photograph; it’s not even really about photography.

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Barthes searched for his mother and found her in a photo of a five-year-old; my own mother used to search for me and would find me in a baby picture she kept in her wallet. As a child, I would resent it when she would take out and kiss that tiny black-and-white square capture; that isn’t me, I would think, squirming in silence.

My mother assumed that I was just bashful, but with every year that I felt myself drift away from that image that she had of me, the squirming grew into pain, until one day—at maybe eight or nine years old, or maybe older—I snatched the photo from her hands and ripped it to shreds. My mother burst into tears.

The strange solipsism of reader response, that point of contact that Barthes calls the punctum, can’t be predicted nor designed.

There’s a happy postscript to this story of mine; decades later, my mother thanked me for that day. She felt freed from her tendency to hold on to the wrong things. I hadn’t realized that, over the years, she’d deciphered my childish message. I think I’m still decoding it.

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Barthes doesn’t actually abandon his project halfway through his book, as he continues to spiral outwards from that single photo to analyze public works right through the final chapter, but his “recantation” at the end of part 1 does signal something important: that this was never truly a book about photography per se, but a book about grief.

In chapter 36, Barthes takes a stand against social constructivists who insist that photography is not a window on the world, but always a distorting lens, if not a projection: “the photograph, they say, is not an analogon of the world; what is presented is fabricated.” Barthes sides with the realists who, in his view, “do not take the photograph as a ‘copy’ of reality, but for an emanation of past reality: a magic, not an art.”

I believe that Barthes’s need to take this stand in a debate that feels much less dichotomous to me today is an expression of his love and mourning—his pain.

In the very last pages, Barthes realizes the deep structure of subjectivity behind the punctum, that pricking beyond symbolic meaning: “I began by calling it: the pangs of love.” He goes on to rename it as “pity,” but that to me feels like another sleight of hand in a book of spells pretending to do cultural sociology. This is a book about grief. These pages are soaked in tears.

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